544 pages • Faber & Faber • April 3rd, 2008 [HB]
I had the pleasure of meeting Adam Mars-Jones shortly after he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 1983. At that time he had the unusual distinction of being a prize-winning novelist who had not actually produced a novel. Even now his published output can hardly be described as prolific (although he has been very active as a critic and broadcaster). Any lost time however is more than made up for with Pilcrow which,at 525 pages, is a literary tour-de-force by any standard. And if it is to be merely the first of a trilogy then, on this showing, the complete sequence will surely qualify as his magnum opus.
Lost time inevitably calls to mind À la Recherche du Temps Perdu and, indeed, Mars-Jones mentions Proust. But there is more than a nod towards the Proustian in this exceptional novel’s broad scope and leisurely yet rigorous exploration of time, space and memory. While a bald outline of the plot would hardly be calculated to send one rushing out to buy the book, to describe the memoir of a bed-ridden disabled boy growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s as a gripping read might seem hyperbolic, if not actually a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. However, gripping it undoubtedly is as the minutiae of the invalid boy’s daily routine delicately unfolds, first at home in the care of his doting but neurotic mother, Laura, then in hospital with the engaging, oddball, sinister and even sadistic characters on the ward (both staff and patients), and finally at Vulcan, a special boarding school in a crenellated Gothic folly known to the locals as ‘the School for Plastics’ (based on the real-life, now defunct, Hephaistos School at Farley Castle near Reading).
A strict regime of bed-rest followed by somewhat erratic care at the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital in the grounds of Nancy Astor’s Cliveden means that John ‘JJ’ Cromer’s young life is largely one of the mind and not exactly crowded with incident – although the narrative is actually punctuated with some quite surprising, even shocking events. His life takes on an added dimension with the dawning realisation that he is growing up gay; something which is of absorbing interest to him as he reaches adolescence and is able to explore his sexuality, theoretically and eventually practically, through his crushes on his male teachers and peers.
Mars-Jones realises JJ and his circumscribed world with acute insight and sensitivity. His writing is tender but never sentimental, ironical but never cruel, dense but never ponderous. And for those readers who are JJ’s contemporaries, the memories will come flooding back as the joys and horrors of the era are deftly evoked. One smiles and squirms by turns in recognition of the petty-snobbish, class-conscious, deferential, rigidly hierarchical, yet at the same time quaintly innocent 1950s. The onset of the kinder, more relaxed and knowing 1960s offers some relief although, as Mars-Jones pointedly observes, ‘…the ‘sixties were a decade which was a long time getting started and a long time dying down’.
The cast of supporting characters is very well-drawn, and almost Dickensian in its richness and eccentricity. One can also relate to the Cromer family’s swirling emotional undercurrents, jealousies and love-hate relationships, at once fiercely loyal and yet intensely dysfunctional – just like most families, one suspects.
There is a strong metaphysical element running through Pilcrow. As a result of having to lay absolutely still throughout his early years, JJ develops his own meditation programme which, as he matures, leads to an adherence to the principles of Hindu mysticism. The title alludes to this notion of metaphysics: a pilcrow is itself a symbol – ¶ – resembling a reversed Gothic P. It has historically been used to mark paragraphs in the Bible and to identify a new train of thought (middle ages), which, when considering the book’s narrative structure, is particularly pertinent.
This is a delightfully wise, generous, humane – if not humanist – work which will leave a lasting impression as payment for those who embark on such a marathon read.
“I was quite shocked the first time I saw it in an
ordinary secular book, as if I had bumped into
a bishop in full fig at the supermarket.”